The December 1984 Bhopal tragedy has the feel of old history. The leak of toxic gas that emanated from the Union Carbide plant, killing and injuring thousands of people, occurred when many readers of this magazine were students in high school or in college. By now, one expects that the city in the center of India has moved on.
But it has not. Thousands of victims continue to suffer painful symptoms, and doctors remain unsure of how best to treat them. Mostly left untouched, the old Union Carbide site still contains tons of hazardous waste that may be polluting the water supply. And the bulk of the financial compensation Union Carbide paid is finally reaching victims.
The lack of progress in the Bhopal mess came as a shock to many of the foreign attendees of the International Conference on the 20th Anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy held at Indian Institute of Technology, in Kanpur, India in early December. A side trip to Bhopal arranged by J. P. Gupta, a professor of chemical engineering at Kanpur and the organizer of the conference, provided further evidence that huge problems persist.
"It's only the beginning of the Bhopal gas tragedy," Dennis C. Hendershot, a senior technical fellow at Rohm and Haas, noted in one of the last speeches at the event. Most of the conference attendees were chemical engineering professors or representatives of regulatory authorities. Union Carbide was not represented, and executives from other chemical companies were few.
The disaster began in a tank of methyl isocyanate, which Union Carbide was producing and storing at the site as part of its manufacturing process for Sevin and other insecticides. A runaway reaction led to the release of 25–40 tons of gas over the sleeping city of Bhopal, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh. As hundreds of thousands of people breathed the fumes, the authorities responded haphazardly. Emergency planning and response, an accepted practice in the chemical industry and neighboring communities today, had its genesis in the Bhopal tragedy.
The release had a profound effect on Union Carbide. Early on, the company admitted moral responsibility for the tragedy, and in 1989, it paid $470 million to the government of India as part of a legal settlement. Its reputation damaged, Carbide shed assets and employees. The firm was bought by Dow in 2001.
Carbide has claimed that the gas leak was the result of sabotage, whereas other people say the plant's inadequate safety features and the company's management practices were the main factors.
Tomm F. Sprick, director of the U.S. Union Carbide information center, says Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL), the owner of the plant at the time of the accident, was a separate company that was run by Indians. Union Carbide of the U.S. held a 51% stake in UCIL. Under the supervision of Indian courts, Carbide sold UCIL in 1994 to Eveready Industries India Ltd. to pay for the construction of a hospital in Bhopal. In 1998, the Government of Madhya Pradesh took back the Carbide site that it had leased to UCIL and later to Eveready.
Union Carbide has largely moved on since 1984, albeit as a Dow property. In Bhopal, a city of 1.6 million, the situation is far from normalized. Those affected by the 1984 tragedy seem to have moved on only in the sense of changing their priorities. Champa Devi Shukla and Rashida Bee say they most want the former Carbide site cleaned up because waste left behind is leaching into the water supply.
"The gas tragedy caused many deaths and injuries 20 years ago," Shukla says. "But the contamination of the water supply is a current problem that creates new victims."
Bee and Shukla lead Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh, a nongovernmental organization that provides a voice for female victims of the gas tragedy. They both suffered health problems as a result of the gas leak and lost several family members. They received the $125,000 Goldman Prize last year from the Goldman Environmental Foundation for their tenacity in speaking on behalf of victims.
At the Kanpur conference, G. D. Agarwal, a professor of environmental engineering at Gandhi Gramodaya Mahavidyalaya University in Chitrakoot, India, said a study conducted in 2001 and 2002 by his team of researchers found elevated levels of mercury in drinking water in and around Bhopal. The mercury contamination had a seasonal pattern, climbing to as high as 70 µg per L in well water after the summer monsoon. The patterns of dispersion and concentration of the mercury showed the source was the old Carbide site, he said.
A tour of the old Carbide factory supplies visual evidence of much hazardous waste still left at the site. Drops of mercury, used as a sealant for rotary equipment, can be easily spotted at the Sevin plant. In other parts of the site, full bags of materials labeled "poison" are still stacked in large quantities.
In a sworn affidavit to the Southern District Court of New York in 2000, Tota Ram Chouhan, who in 1984 was an operator at the methyl isocyanate plant, stated that Union Carbide had dumped several tons of toxic materials at the plant site and nearby. "The soil, water, and air in and around the factory is polluted," he stated.
Chouhan, who was not on duty at the time but who suffered injury as a result of the accident, wrote a book about his experience with Union Carbide in which he attacks the company's management and its general disregard for safety.
Filed by activists in Bhopal, the lawsuit is the last remaining suit against Carbide being pursued in a U.S. jurisdiction, and it mainly seeks to force Carbide to clean up the site.
Carbide's Sprick says UCIL spent more than $2 million on cleanup. The subsidiary removed and transformed tens of thousands of pounds of methyl isocyanate from the site, something that Sprick calls "one of the single most important remediation activities."
He says the local government hampered UCIL's other cleanup attempts. "Every step of the cleanup work undertaken by UCIL was approved, monitored, and directed by the central and state government authorities in India." He adds that the local government restricted UCIL's access to the site.
Much of the waste left behind is in evaporation ponds outside the factory gates. In a paper published in 2001 in Waste Management & Research (19, 573), K. V. George and M. P. Patil--both from India's National Environmental Engineering Research Institute--and consultant R. Swaminathan relate that the ponds are lined with low-density polyethylene to prevent groundwater contamination. The wastewater pumped into the ponds contained calcium salts; chlorides and sulfates of sodium and magnesium; and traces of organics like a-naphthol, carbaryl, and various manufacturing intermediates. At the time of their study 12 years ago, the authors found that the ponds were not leaking.
Conference attendees visiting the site in December found that most of the area, covering about 1 sq km, is dry. One pond still contains water and is used as a watering point for cattle. In many places, torn polyethylene liner protrudes from the ground.
IN A REPORT on Bhopal published last November, Amnesty International cites Union Carbide internal memos dating from the 1970s that said the ponds posed a "danger of polluting subsurface water supplies in the Bhopal area."
Sprick says UCIL was in charge of the ponds, not Union Carbide of the U.S. He claims that "UCIL conducted extensive work to clean up the contamination within the walls of the solar evaporation pond, and that work was mostly completed by 1998, the year the state government of Madhya Pradesh took control of the site." He points out that studies made in 1990 and 1997 "found no groundwater contamination had been caused by the pond within an area of 2.5 km around the pond."
Regardless of earlier efforts, authorities in India today believe that the site is a threat to the health of residents of Bhopal, particularly the many less-advantaged families who get their drinking water from hand pumps and tube wells. In March 2002, the minister of chemicals and fertilizers in Delhi endorsed a Greenpeace survey that found ground and water contamination at the former Carbide site.
The government of Madhya Pradesh has taken only preliminary steps to clean up the site, with no major work actually taking place. Meanwhile, it has been suing Eveready Industries in India to force it to clean up the site. It has also supported the lawsuit filed in New York, issuing a legal statement last July claiming that "Union Carbide should bear all financial burden and cost for the purpose of environmental cleanup and remediation."
Union Carbide insists that the state government had years ago assumed responsibility for the cleanup. "In 1998, the government of the State of Madhya Pradesh revoked Eveready's lease on the property, publicly took possession of the site and the facility and, in a press release, publicly stated that it was assuming responsibility for completing any further remediation," Sprick says.
Because Dow acquired Carbide in 2001, activists in Bhopal and several attendees of the Kanpur conference believe it is now up to Dow to clean up the site. Dow appears to still be testing the waters. Addressing the question of the "legacy" of Union Carbide in Bhopal, Dow's website states that "Dow continues to make a genuine effort to identify an appropriate humanitarian contribution in India consistent with our philanthropic commitment around the world in countries where Dow or its subsidiaries operate."
While a decision is pending on how the site will be cleaned up and by whom, treatment for those who were injured by the gas leak 20 years ago remains haphazard. Even the accounting of the people killed is unresolved. Carbide accepts an estimate by the government of Madhya Pradesh that the accident caused 3,800 deaths. But Amnesty International describes evidence of an immediate death toll of 7,000 plus 15,000 who died in following years.
In a book released at the Kanpur conference, Ingrid Eckerman, a Swedish medical doctor who was a member of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal (IMCB), reports that many Bhopal residents continue to suffer from effects of the gas leak. The most common disease affecting them is bronchiolitis obliterans, an incurable disease of the lungs. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder are also widespread.
Eckerman has been returning to Bhopal every year since 1994 when IMCB performed a three-week study on the health of the city's population. The group was an ad hoc volunteer panel of 14 health professionals from 12 countries that disbanded itself after its work was completed in 1994.
In its report, Amnesty estimates that about 120,000 victims are suffering debilitating illnesses. In addition to chronic pulmonary diseases, those affected by the gas are generally more prone to falling sick. Eye infections are also common.
In a presentation at the Kanpur conference, S. K. Jain, a senior consultant in pulmonology at Moolchand K R Hospital, New Delhi, estimated that about two-thirds of Bhopal's 1984 population of 800,000 suffered health problems as a result of the gas leak. Jain said he was basing his statements on studies in which he participated, made by the Indian Council on Medical Research (ICMR), which in May 2004 published its report on 10 years of epidemiological studies.
IN TOTAL, Jain said, 4% of Bhopal's population was severely affected and suffered high morbidity. Another 9% was moderately affected, and about 50% was mildly affected. Jain said long-term health studies on Bhopal's population, halted 10 years ago, showed that the health of victims of the gas leak did not get worse over time. In particular, he said there is no evidence that exposure to the gas has carcinogenic or genetic consequences on the surviving population.
These findings are disputed by numerous medical authorities in Bhopal. City hospitals there have preserved the severely deformed fetuses that were miscarried after the 1984 tragedy. Satinah Sarangi, founder of the Sambhavna Trust Clinic that treats gas victims, says a published study [J. Am. Med. Assoc., 290, 1856 (2003)] shows that children conceived by and born to parents exposed to the disaster are suffering genetic consequences.
Rhamana Dhara, another ex-IMCB member who is a professor of public health at Emory University, Atlanta, says that the JAMA study used a too small sample. Its findings, however, strengthen the need for more in-depth studies on long-term health effects [J. Am. Med. Assoc., 291, 422 (2004)].
Sushma Acquilla, a British doctor who was also an IMCB member, said at the conference that studies on the long-term health impact of exposure to the gas cloud are still needed and that ICMR's studies were halted prematurely. "We need to look at the genetic consequences, the potential for cancer, and the effect on the people who were born in Bhopal after 1984," she said. Acquilla said a new IMCB study, assessing public health 20 years after the accident, would cost as little as $30,000.
While the survivors continue to suffer various health problems, their financial compensation has been the subject of an ongoing debate. Activists and Union Carbide have had constant clashes on whether the $470 million the American company paid out in 1989 was miserly or generous. What is clear is that the payouts have reached victims slowly.
Gupta, the organizer of the Bhopal conference, says payment to the relatives of the dead began in 1992, three years after the settlement. Payments to injured victims began in 1994 and continued until 2003 as cases were progressively settled. Last July, the Supreme Court of India ordered that the process be speeded up and that the remaining funds be distributed.
Until last summer, Indian authorities had distributed an average of 25,000 rupees (about $570) to each of 570,000 victims, for a total of 14.2 billion rupees (about $325 million). In the meantime, with accrued interest and the depreciation of the rupee against the dollar, the remaining amount had grown to 15.6 billion rupees. Disbursement of funds is now under way at a quicker pace.
Despite the years that have passed, the victims of 1984 are still attracting much international sympathy. The conference attendees provide a recent example. Instead of simply going home at the end of the conference, they spontaneously formed a committee to decide on appropriate follow-up actions. The committee includes Carolyn W. Merritt, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board, and M. Sam Mannan, director of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center at Texas A&M University.
Gupta, the conference organizer, will act as the coordinator of the committee. He became involved with Bhopal victims a few years ago when the government of India hired him to produce hazard analysis studies for Bhopal and the neighboring district of Raisen. "It would be a shame not to be involved," he says.
Comparing reports from the 10th anniversary of the tragedy with the situation in Bhopal today, one is struck by how little the situation has changed. Back then, C&EN Senior Correspondent Wil Lepkowski reported that the Union Carbide plant was about to be dismantled, that Carbide was still being targeted by activists, and that victims were starting to receive financial compensation.
Union Carbide has been replaced by Dow as the main target of activists, but the victims are still in the process of receiving compensation, and there are no signs that the plant will be dismantled any time soon. Time will tell whether international sympathy for the victims and Dow's eagerness for a positive image in India will translate into site cleanup and new studies to monitor their health.